Category Archives: infrastructure

Texas was a Wake-up Call

The debacle in Texas recently with the winter storm and resultant collapse of several essential services should be a wake-up call for the rest of us that enjoy civilization. Rick Perry, former governor of Texas claimed however that Texans would rather freeze in their homes than accept federal intervention in their power grid. Really? Good luck with that.

First and foremost we need to recognize that civilization requires cooperation, in fact, that is what civilization is. A big part of Texas’s recent problem is that they don’t recognize this. Much of Texas’s electricity is supplied by a “private grid” that doesn’t require federal oversight. The rest of the United States is powered by one of two much larger grids that do.

The larger the grid the easier it is to ship power from an unstressed region to one of stress. It’s no accident that the lights stayed on in El Paso, Texas because their power that may have failed during the blizzard didn’t. Simply, they were connected to a wider grid that shipped power in from areas unaffected by the blizzard.

“Unaffected by the blizzard” means two things, both of which were addressed in El Paso. Over a decade ago, El Paso suffered a grid failure due to cold weather. They learned their lesson and upgraded the capacity of their electrical system to withstand the vagaries of cold weather.

Societal trends here in the United States, as elsewhere in many parts of the world, is to increased reliance on electricity as the clean power source of the future – and we need to get ready for it. It will not be cheap but it must be done.

Secretary of Transportation Buttigieg recently spoke of a maintenance backlog. He was of course talking about our transportation systems like roads and bridges, but it also applies to our electrical grid. More interconnections, more weather protection, even more terrorist/sabotage protection, are necessary.

More interconnections will help promote the greater utilization of intermittent power sources such as wind and solar. Much more power will be needed as we electrify our transportation systems – electric cars and delivery vehicles, up to and including semis. Both freight and high-speed passenger service can with relative ease be powered by electricity.

Weather protection may in some places require that we bury our electric transmission lines, just as pipelines. For that matter, we could bury much of our transportation. Elon Musk, of Tesla and Space-X fame, also has boring company. He has suggested that high-speed rails would benefit greatly by going into underground tunnels where the pressure could be reduced to limit wind resistance. Giant pneumatic tubes for transportation just like bank remote window use for checks.

The cost for all the needed improvements for the future is not trivial but will mean jobs. And that is the very essence of civilization: we cooperate for the benefit of all.

Dr Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.

Infrastructure Matters

The good news is that 2018 wasn’t the hottest year on record, only the fourth hottest. The bad news is that the first, second, and third were 2015, 2016, and 2017. One record year doesn’t mean much as the average temperature of the planet is a somewhat “noisy” signal. But the trend is obvious and can’t be denied. How about this: 17 of the 18 hottest years on record have occurred since the year 2000.

This trend could be overlooked if one only looked at a particular locale like one state or even one country, but these statistics are based on the global mean temperature, measured by several different agencies, using differing techniques.

A proxy for the global temperature, isotopic analysis of ice cores at the poles can take us even further back in time, even past several glacial/interglacial cycles. It is hotter now than ever. The planet is warming overall and that is forcing other changes to the climate besides being simply hotter.

One of the more serious impacts which we are beginning to see already is an increase in the severity of weather phenomena. More intense hurricanes, heavier rainfall episodes, and more extended droughts can all be attributed to climate change.

The changes are a real existential threat to society. Our infrastructure must be remade to accommodate climate change. At the same time, we need to takes the steps necessary to slow planetary warming by reducing and ultimately abandoning the use of fossil fuels.

The text of the state of the union speech contained some mention of the need for attention to infrastructure. “Both parties should be able to unite for a great rebuilding of America’s crumbling infrastructure,” Trump told the assembled government leaders. “I know that Congress is eager to pass an infrastructure bill, and I am eager to work … on legislation to deliver new and important infrastructure investment.”

What wasn’t heard in the speech was any mention of climate change. In fact, climate change has been off the radar for the last three state of the union speeches. Simply replacing an old interstate highway bridge with a new one will not prepare us for the future. The bridges of the future will have to be higher to protect from increased flooding and built stronger to protect from hurricanes, tornadoes, or other storm events.

Coastal cities must plan for more flooding and more saltwater intrusion into their water systems. Power systems must not just be replaced but must be made more robust. It will be necessary to bury our electric transmission and distribution lines to protect them from untoward weather events.

An event, not out of the question, would be another record flood like the 1927 flood of the lower Mississippi River. An area, 27,000 square miles was flooded to a depth of 30 feet or more in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. In today’s dollars that would be a several trillion dollar damage event.

Here in Arkansas, Governor Hutchinson is floating legislation to provide 300 million dollars annually for transportation infrastructure via a combination of sales and fuel taxes. Also planned is an increase in the registration fees for plug-in hybrid and fully electric cars such as the Chevrolet Bolt and the Tesla line. This is particularly wrong-headed as they are a solution to global warming. We should be promoting these vehicles, not punishing their use. The Governor’s plan is a business as usual infrastructure fix without any vision for the future and actually punishes actions needed for the future.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.